Writers living in liberal democracies are now nearly as worried about the government watching them as their colleagues in countries that have long histories of internal spying, according to an international survey conducted by PEN, a literary and human rights organization.

Brave writers have historically stood up to even the gravest threats from authoritarian regimes. Conversely, there have always been some who willingly censor themselves.

But the online survey of 772 self-selected respondents in 50 countries nevertheless indicates that the mass surveillance programs disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are chilling freedom of expression – in some cases, nearly as much as in countries the U.S. considers repressive.

The proportion of respondents in liberal democracies who report actually having engaged in self-censorship thankfully remains small.

Using Freedom House rankings of countries, the PEN report states that 34 percent of writers in “free countries”; 44 percent in “partly free” countries; and 61 percent in “not free” countries “have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, or have seriously considered it, due to fear of government surveillance.”

If you only count those how say they’ve actually avoided such topics — and not those who have only “considered” it — the numbers go down, to 20 percent in free countries, compared to 41 percent in not-free countries.

When it comes to actually avoiding activities on social media due to fear of government surveillance, the numbers are considerably closer: 31 percent in free countries and 41 percent in non-free countries.

And almost as many respondents in free countries (15 percent) as in not-free countries (19 percent) reported that they have “have refrained from conducting internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious… due to fear of government surveillance.”

PEN also reported hearing about fears that communications data being collected and stored today could be misused tomorrow. It quoted one respondent:

Stored and analyzed data today that does not have any immediate consequences on the life of a minority-language author like me, can later become extremely dangerous, following a change towards a much more totalitarian government.

An October 2013 survey PEN condcucted of U.S. writers found that 85 percent “were very or somewhat worried about current levels of government surveillance” and that 16 percent reported having censored themselves by not writing or speaking about a particular topic.

That report generated ferocious blowback from some in the literary and journalism community. “What,” asked Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin, “is the matter with these writers?”

Ulin concluded that “the most chilling aspect of the PEN report” was “Not the surveillance, treacherous as it is, but that some writers, at least, already appear willing to capitulate.”

This report will raise some of the same questions and concerns.

But PEN’s greater point is considerably more unassailable: That “Writers’ accounts of the impact of mass surveillance sound a loud alarm bell about the pervasive damage that intrusive surveillance is wreaking on privacy and unfettered expression worldwide.”

And while PEN’s survey was of fiction and non-fiction writers of all sorts, it dovetails with a report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union based on a survey of journalists and lawyers working in the areas of national security and intelligence that I wrote about last summer.

In that survey, the journalists and lawyers said government surveillance has impaired if not eliminated their ability of to communicate confidentially with their sources and their clients.

Photo: Ben Ward/Flickr